Human Rights Treaty Bodies
Glossary of treaty body terminology
How to use this glossary
The seven human rights treaty bodies have developed working methods and practices which are broadly similar but which differ in certain important aspects. Terminology adopted by the committees also varies in certain respects. This glossary is intended to explain some of the important elements of the treaty body system and highlight some of the most significant differences in terminology.
In June 2004, the third inter-committee meeting requested OHCHR, in collaboration with the Division for the Advancement of Women, to submit "a proposal to the fourth inter-committee meeting on the standardization of terminology used by treaty bodies relating to the technical elements of their work." (A/59/254)
Click on a word or phrase in the list on the right to see its definition.
A committee of independent experts appointed to monitor the implementation by States parties of the core international human rights treaties. They are called 'treaty bodies' because each is created in accordance with the provisions of the treaty which it oversees. In many important respects, they are independent of the United Nations system, although they receive support from the United Nations Secretariat and report of the General Assembly. Also referred to a the "committee" or "treaty-monitoring body".
A treaty body's interpretation of the content of human rights provisions, on thematic issues or its methods of work. General comments often seek to clarify the reporting duties of State parties with respect to certain provisions and suggest approaches to implementating treaty provisions. Also called "general recommendation" (CERD & CEDAW).
The term used by CERD and CEDAW to refer to general comments.
The observations and recommendations issued by a treaty body after consideration of a State party's report. Concluding observations refer both to positive aspects of a State's implementation of the treaty and areas where the treaty body recommends that further action needs to be taken by the State. The treaty bodies are committed to issuing concluding observations which are concrete, focused and implementable and are paying increasing attention to measures to ensure effective follow-up to their concluding observations.
Another name for concluding observation.
Treaty body recommendation
Another name for concluding observation.
List of issues and questions
All treaty bodies now formulate, usually at a pre-sessional working group, on the basis of the State party report and other information available to the treaty body (information from UN specialized agencies, NGO submissions, etc.) a list of issues and questions which is transmitted to the State party in advance of the session at which the treaty body will consider the report. The list of issues provides the framework for the constructive dialogue with the State party's delegation. The delegation may respond to the issues and questions orally during the session, but some committees encourage the State party to submit written responses to the list of issues in advance allowing the dialogue to move more quickly to specificities.
The list of isses is particularly important for treaty bodies facing a backlog of reports awaiting consideration as it provides a source of up-to-date information for the committee with regard to a State whose report may have been awaiting consideration for as much as two years.
Lists of issues are published as official documents and are available on the treaty bodies database.
Written response to list of issues
Some States parties respond to the treaty body's list of issues and questions in writing in advance of the session at which their report will be considered by the committee. Written responses to a list of issues constitute a supplement to or update of the State party report.
Written responses are not published as official documents but are available on the treaty bodies database.
All treaty bodies have developed the practice of inviting States parties to send a delegation to attend the session at which their report is being considered by the committee in order to allow them to respond to members' questions and provide additional information on their efforts to implement the provisions of the relevant treaty. This procedure is not supposed to be adversial and the committee does not aim to pass judgment on the State party in a judicial sense. Instead the aim is to engage with the State party in a constructive dialogue with the aim of assisting the Government in its efforts to implement the treaty as fully and effectively as possible. The notion of constructive dialogue underpins the view that the treaty bodies are not judicial bodies (even if some of their functions are quasi-judicial) but rather are bodies created to monitor the implementation of the treaties.
The procedure by which a treaty body will consider the situation in a country at one of its sessions in the absence of a report from the State party. The procedure is used in cases where the report has been overdue for an excessive period and the State party has not responded to the treaty body's requests for a report. In many cases, States parties chose to submit a report to avoid the review procedure; in other cases, States choose to send a delegation to the treaty body's session and answer questions from the treaty body experts even though they have been able to submit a report.
Consideration of country situation in absence of a report
Another way of describing the review procedure.
Rules of Procedure
The formal rules adopted by a treaty body to govern the way in which it undertakes its business. Each committee is empowered by the relevant treaty to adopt its own rules of procedure. The rules of procedure usually cover such matters as election of officers and procedures for adopting decisions especially where no consensus can be reached. Rules of procedures are related to, but distinct from, working methods.
The procedures and practices developed by each treaty body to facilitate it in its work. Such practices are not always formally adopted in the rules of procedure of the Committee. The working methods of each treaty body are constantly changing in response to the workload and other factors. In recent years, there there has been a move, through the annual meeting of chairpersons, to streamline and harmonize the working methods of the treaty bodies.
Reporting guidelines for States parties
Each treaty body has produced written guidelines for States parties giving advice on the form and content of the reports which States are obliged to submit under the relevant treaty. These guidelines vary in approach to some degree: some committees have provided detailed guidance on an article-by-article basis whereas other have given more general guidance (see Compilation of Reporting Guidelines HRI/GEN/2/Rev.2).
The Secretary-General in his second reform report (A/57/387) called on the treaty bodies to adopt harmonized guidelines on reporting under the international human rights treaties. Draft harmonized guidelines are under consideration by the committees.
A document submitted by a State party to the Secretary-General containing information of a general nature about the country which is of relevance to all of the treaties, including information on land and people, the general political structure and the general legal framework within which human rights are protected in the State. The core document consitutes a common initial part of all reports to the treaty bodies. The core document was introduced in 1991 as a way of reducing some of the repetition of information found in States' reports to the various treaty bodies.
Expanded core document
Common core document
Pre-sessional working group
Country task force
State party report
Day of general discussion
Meeting with states parties
Treaties and Commission Branch (TCB)
The branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which provides secretariat support to all of the treaty bodies except CEDAW. It is based in Palais Wilson, Geneva. TCB also provides support for the Commission on Human Rights, the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture. Formerly called "Support Services Branch" (SSB).
Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW)
The Division for the Advancement of Women is based at UN Headquarters in New York and provides secretariat support for CEDAW. More...
Meeting of chairpersons
Since 1984, the chairpersons of the human rights treaty bodies have met regularly to discuss matters of mutual concern and coordinate their activities. Since 1995, the meeting of chairpersons has been annual and takes place in Geneva, normally in May. More...
The Inter-Committee Meeting takes place immediately before the chairpersons meeting and includes the chairpersons and two additional members from each of the Committees. The first meeting was held in Geneva in 2002 to discuss harmonization of working methods among Committees. The increased the level of participation of each of the committees allows for more detailed discussion of recommendations on issues relating to working methods than had been possible in the Annual Chairpersons Meeting because of time constraints. More...
A State party to a treaty is a State that has expressed its consent to be bound by that treaty by an act of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession, etc., where that treaty has entered into force for that particular State. This means that the State is bound by the treaty under international law. See article 2(1)(g) of the Vienna Convention 1969.
Some treaties are only open to States whereas others are also open to other entities with treaty-making capacity. The two Covenants and ICERD are open to signature and ratification by "any State Member of the United Nations or member of any of its specialized
agencies, by any State Party to the Statute of the International Court of
Justice, and by any other State which has been invited by the General Assembly
of the United Nations". The other core human rights treaties are open to all States. The Optional Protocols are all restricted to States parties to the parent treaty except the CRC Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict to which any State may accede.
Multilateral treaties usually provide for signature subject to ratification, acceptance or approval - also called simple signature. In such cases, a signing State does not undertake positive legal obligations under the treaty upon signature. However, signature does indicate the State's intention to take steps to express its consent to be bound by the treaty at a later date. In other words, signature is a preparatory step on the way to ratification of the treaty by the State.
Signature also creates an obligation, in the period between signature and ratification, acceptance or approval, to refrain in good faith from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty (see article 18 of the Vienna Convention 1969).
Consent to be bound
In order to become a party to a multilateral treaty, a State must demonstrate, through a concrete act, its willingness to undertake the legal rights and obligations contained in the treaty. In other words, it must express its consent to be bound by the treaty. A State can express its consent to be bound in several ways, in accordance with the final clauses of the relevant treaty. The most common ways are: definitive signature; ratification; acceptance or approval; and accession.
The act by which a State expresses its consent to be bound by a treaty is distinct from the treaty's entry into force. Consent to be bound is the act whereby a State demonstrates its willingness to undertake the legal rights and obligations under a treaty through definitive signature or the deposit of an instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. Entry into force of a treaty with regard to a State is the moment the treaty becomes legally binding for the State that is party to the treaty. Each treaty contains provisions dealing with both aspects.
Ratification, acceptance or approval
Ratification, acceptance and approval all refer to the act undertaken on the international plane, whereby a State establishes its consent to be bound by a treaty. Most multilateral treaties expressly provide for States to express their consent to be bound by signature subject to ratification, acceptance or approval.
Providing for signature subject to ratification allows States time to seek approval for the treaty at the domestic level and to enact any legislation necessary to implement the treaty domestically, prior to undertaking the legal obligations under the treaty at the international level. Once a State has ratified a treaty at the international level, it must give effect to the treaty domestically. This is the responsibility of the State. Generally, there is no time limit within which a State is requested to ratify a treaty which it has signed. Upon ratification, the State becomes legally bound under the treaty.
Ratification at the international level, which indicates to the international community a State's commitment to undertake the obligations under a treaty, should not be confused with ratification at the national level, which a State may be required to undertake in accordance with its own constitutional provisions before it expresses consent to be bound internationally. Ratification at the national level is inadequate to establish a State's intention to be legally bound at the international level. The required actions at the international level shall also be undertaken.
Accession is the act whereby a State that has not signed a treaty expresses its consent to become a party to that treaty by depositing an "instrument of accession" with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Accession has the same legal effect as ratification, acceptance or approval. However, unlike ratification, which must be preceded by signature to create binding legal obligations under international law, accession requires only one step, namely, the deposit of an instrument of accession. The Secretary-General, as depositary, has tended to treat instruments of ratification that have not been preceded by signature as instruments of accession, and the States concerned have been advised accordingly.
The conditions under which accession may occur and the procedure involved depend on the provisions of the relevant treaty. Accession is generally employed by States wishing to express their consent to be bound by a treaty where the deadline for signature has passed. However, many modern multilateral treaties provide for accession even during the period that the treaty is open for signature. See articles 2(b) and 15 of the Vienna Convention 1969.
Entry into force
Definitive entry into force
Entry into force of a treaty is the moment in time when a treaty becomes legally binding on the parties to the treaty. The provisions of the treaty determine the moment of its entry into force. This may be a date specified in the treaty or a date on which a specified number of ratifications, approvals, acceptances or accessions have been deposited with the depositary. The date when a treaty deposited with the Secretary-General enters into force is determined in accordance with the treaty provisions.
entry into force for a State
A treaty that has already entered into force may enter into force in a manner specified in it for a State or international organization that expresses its consent to be bound by it after its entry into force. See article 24 of the Vienna Convention 1969.
A reservation is a statement made by a State by which it purports to exclude or alter the legal effect of certain provisions of a treaty in their application to that State. A reservation may enable a State to participate in a multilateral treaty that it would otherwise be unable or unwilling to participate in. States can make reservations to a treaty when they sign, ratify, accept, approve or accede to it. When a State makes a reservation upon signing, it must confirm the reservation upon ratification, acceptance or approval.
Reservations cannot be contrary to the object and purpose of the treaty, which means that a State may, when signing, ratifying, accepting, approving or acceding to a treaty, make a reservation unless:
(a) The reservation is prohibited by the treaty;
(b) The treaty provides that only specified reservations, which do not include the reservation in question, may be made.
Reservations after deposit
Where the Secretary-General, as depositary, receives a reservation after the deposit of the instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession that meets all the necessary requirements, the Secretary-General circulates the reservation to all the States concerned. The Secretary-General accepts the reservation in deposit only if no such State informs him that it does not wish him to consider it to have accepted that reservation.
Objections to reservations
Where a State concerned lodges an objection to a treaty with the Secretary-General after the end of the 12-month period, the Secretary-General circulates it as a "communication".
Many States have formulated reservations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979, subjecting their obligations under the treaty to domestic legal requirements. These reservations, in turn, have attracted a wide range of objections from States parties (see Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General
ST/LEG/SER.E/19, volume I, part I, chapter IV).
Effect of objection on entry into force of reservations
An objection to a reservation "... does not preclude the entry into force of the treaty as between the objecting and reserving States unless a contrary intention is definitely expressed by the objecting State" (article 20(4)(b) of the Vienna Convention 1969). Normally, to avoid uncertainty, an objecting State specifies whether its objection to the reservation precludes the entry into force of the treaty between itself and the reserving State. The Secretary-General circulates such objections.
If a State does not object to a reservation made by another State, the first State is deemed to have tacitly accepted the reservation (article 21(1) of the Vienna Convention 1969).
Withdrawal of reservations
A State may, unless the treaty provides otherwise, withdraw its reservation or objection to a reservation completely or partially at any time.
Modifications to reservations
An existing reservation may be modified so as to result in a partial withdrawal or to create new exemptions from, or modifications of, the legal effects of certain provisions of a treaty. A modification of the latter kind has the nature of a new reservation. The Secretary-General, as depositary, circulates such modifications and grants the States concerned a specific period within which to object to them. In the absence of objections, the Secretary-General accepts the modification in deposit.
A State may make a declaration about its understanding of a matter contained in or the interpretation of a particular provision in a treaty. Interpretative declarations of this kind, unlike reservations, do not purport to exclude or modify the legal effects of a treaty. The purpose of an interpretative declaration is to clarify the meaning of certain provisions or of the entire treaty.
Optional and mandatory declarations
Treaties may provide for States to make optional and/or mandatory declarations. These declarations are legally binding on the declarants.
Many human rights treaties provide for States to make optional declarations that are legally binding upon them. In most cases, these declarations relate to the competence of human rights commissions or committees. See, e.g., article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966:
A State Party to the present Covenant may at any time declare under this article that it recognizes the competence of the Committee to receive and consider communications to the effect that a State Party claims that another State Party is not fulfilling its obligations under the present Covenant. ...
Where a treaty requires States becoming party to it to make a mandatory declaration, the Secretary-General, as depositary, seeks to ensure that they make such declarations. Some human rights treaties provide for mandatory declarations. Thus, for example, article 3(2) of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, 2000, provides:
Each State Party shall deposit a binding declaration upon ratification of or accession to this Protocol that sets forth the minimum age at which it will permit voluntary recruitment into its national armed forces and a description of the safeguards that it has adopted to ensure that such recruitment is not forced or coerced.
Objections to declarations
States sometimes object to declarations relating to a treaty that is silent on reservations or where the declaration seems in fact to be a true reservation sufficient to modify the legal effects of the treaty. If the objecting State concludes that the declaration is a reservation and/or incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty, the objecting State may prevent the treaty from entering into force between itself and the reserving State. However, if the objecting State intends this result, it should specify it in the objection.
An objecting State sometimes requests that the declarant "clarify" its intention. In such a situation, if the declarant agrees that it has formulated a reservation, it may either withdraw its reservation or confirm that its statement is only a declaration.
NGOs (non-governmental organizations)
NHRIs (national human rights institutions)